March 8, 2008

How much, how much, how much time?

My one previous submission to this blog is a testament to my specific musical tastes. Surely, dozens of artists I’ve avoided either purposefully or not would interest me, but I am more than content with having only one occupy the majority of my listening time. R.E.M. is my touchstone, that to which all else musical is compared. I relate at least one life experience each day to an R.E.M. song, lyric, or image proposed therein (as best as I’ve interpreted them, at least).

A history of me and R.E.M: I was aware of R.E.M. when I was a pre-teenager thanks to the videos for “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World…” I was not mature enough to grasp the music yet and still wasn’t quite there for Green when “Stand” was all over MTV and even featured in the Get a Life opening. When I was 15 years old, a confluence of burgeoning maturity and self-awareness, high school English and religion teachers helping me see the real through the symbolic, and a new confidence to reject my many Lehanian acquaintances’ belief that anything even remotely aesthetic was quee-ya opened me up to Out of Time and the ubiquitous “Losing My Religion”. For the first time, I was able to appreciate popular music’s ability to be challenging on multiple levels. My last 18 years have seen a constant R.E.M. absorption – collecting music, reading biographies, seeing them live (ninth time this June), and now anxiously awaiting Accelerate, the new album praised as the best of their three-legged dog era and one of their best overall.

Perhaps surprisingly, Murmur does not play as major a role in my devotion as one might expect. I first heard R.E.M.’s debut LP when I was 18, so my understanding of its historical significance is more borrowed than perceived. I won’t deny countless observers’ acknowledgement of Murmur as alt rock’s genesis, but the album falls a little short among R.E.M.’s top works behind Reckoning, Lifes Rich Pageant, Automatic for the People, and New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

Murmur establishes a number of R.E.M.’s standards. Most obvious are the jangly guitars and mumbled lyrics. (“Sitting Still” is the archetypal R.E.M. song.) But more important is the band’s practice of keeping albums thematically whole. Each album (with the exception of the disordered Around the Sun) generally explores a single topic. Murmur focuses on the notion of legend, referencing Greek tradition (“Laughing”, Moral Kiosk”, “West of the Fields”), Christian tradition (“Perfect Circle”, “Talk About the Passion”), and the mythology of cultural idealism (“Radio Free Europe”, and the breezily waltzy, seemingly benign “We Walk”, an outsider’s account of Jean-Paul Marat’s bloody assassination in 1793).

For the sake of completion, the other R.E.M. album themes are:

Reckoning - water
Fables of the Reconstruction - the South
Lifes Rich Pageant - the environment
Document - fire
Green - responsibility
Out of Time - relationships
Automatic for the People - mortality
Monster - sex
New Adventures in Hi-Fi - travel
Up - hope
Reveal - consciousness
Around the Sun - ?

Okay, back to Murmur. Of all the tracks, “Radio Free Europe” and “Perfect Circle” stand out strongly for me. This version of RFE is folksier and darker than the superior single released in 1981, fitting the feel of the album much more appropriately. (I was in the Letterman audience for an R.E.M. appearance in 1998. I’d much rather have been there for this.) I feel an especially close connection to "Perfect Circle" with my singular interpretation of it as a description of the confusion and discomfort the remaining eleven apostles felt after the death of Christ. Retired drummer Bill Berry is informally acknoweldged as PC's lyricist (each member gets equal credit for every song). Guitarist Peter Buck has said the recording of PC marked the first time he felt "we were a real band".

R.E.M. A real band.

More later when we get to Document and Automatic for the People...


venerableseed said...

after reading your post I've gathered up all the R.E.M. cd's around the house and requested a few others at the library in order to give them all a thematic listening.

I've never really "got" R.E.M. to the point where I've asked people what the big deal is. Mostly b/c my first experience was the Losing My Religion MTV immersion. But after listening to Murmur dozens of times this week my appreciation has begun to change.

And, honestly, your blog post might be the first answer that anyone's ever given me to the "what the big deal" question that actually makes sense to me and has be wanting to listen to more. cool!

venerableseed said...

also, do you know how self conscious the legend theme was for Murmur at the time? I mean, it's so appropriate as a theme because the album was wholly responsible for REM becoming legends.

Do you think that was the intention?

jsulbyrne said...

Collectively, I don't think R.E.M. has ever taken themselves too seriously, so I doubt the theme was purposeful. Michael Stipe often talks about a "dream room" in his head, a place where lyrics originate. I think he just happened to have some mythological images and characters in mind at the time and crafted stories around them so they could piece together 10-12 tracks for the album (Radio Free Europe and Sitting Still were written a couple years earlier).

polchic said...

Excellent post! I have never heard the thematic explanation before and leave reading this intrigued. Is this common knowledge to serious R.E.M. fans or will I impress listeners by bringing it up in conversation?

jsulbyrne said...

I think it's fairly common knowledge. It’s more apparent with some albums (nearly every song on Automatic for the People references loss, aging, death) than with others (Lifes Rich Pageant’s “Fall on Me”, “Cuyahoga”, and “The Flowers of Guatemala” are pretty clearly about the environment, but the album ends with "Swan Swan H", a Civil War dirge leftover from the previous record, and then a cover of “Superman”. Huh?). It’s not as if each album is conceptual, but with enough listening and interpretation, you can identify the strands of words and images and make the connections.